Brigdh (wordsofastory) wrote,
Brigdh
wordsofastory

Reading Wednesday

What did you just finish?
The Enthusiast by Josh Fruhlinger. A comedy novel about, basically, astroturfing – a method of creating enthusiasm for a product by having marketers join social media and pretend to be genuine fans, starting conversations and dropping names to make it look like there's a groundswell of support. Kate, the main character, belongs to a company that goes even further than usual, encouraging the employees to actually become fans and embed themselves long-term in message boards, facebook groups, fan clubs, and even in-person meetings. Kate is currently balancing two projects: one with die-hard railfans, paid for by a German company trying to sell their trains to the DC Metro, and one with hipsters who have an ironic love for an ancient newspaper soap opera comicstrip (clearly largely based on Apartment 3-G), paid for by a celebrity who really wants to star in the possible movie adaptation. The book is breezy and funny and clearly written by someone who genuinely gets fan-culture (there's one reference to a Captain America tumblr that made me howl with laughter), which resolves in the end with a surprisingly philosophical turn into the ethics of Kate's job.

Fruhlinger writes The Comics Curmudgeon, a comedy blog about newspaper comics, which I've been a fan of for literally years. Even so, I was surprised by how well-written and constructed The Enthusiast is; you would absolutely never guess it's a first novel. As a side note, I was also very pleased by the racial diversity of the characters and the nonchalant handling of Kate's sex life. There's just so much to enjoy in this book! Seriously, check it out – I want more people to read it.


Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey. EVERYONE READ THIS BOOK IT IS AMAZING.

This is a YA retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, though the events of the play make up only a small section of the book near the end. Instead the focus is on Miranda and Caliban's childhood, and how it was to grow up so isolated from all other humanity, controlled and aided only by a distant, imperious father-figure, taking turns as teacher and student of what little knowledge they manage to glean under such circumstances. And then Prospero's plot comes to fruition, and I don't want to spoil the ending, but oh God my heart. Nothing is changed from the original play, but told from this new perspective everything is changed.

The writing style is very different from Carey's Kushiel books – still a bit florid (though I suppose that's only appropriate for a Shakespeare retelling), but more delicate. The chapters alternate between Miranda and Caliban's POVs, with Caliban's narration slowly growing in vocabulary and complexity throughout the book.

I've always had sympathy for Caliban, maybe more sympathy than really fits the play. He apparently attempted to rape Miranda, he tries to murder Prospero, he's frequently ingratiatingly servile and just kinda dumb – and yet, and yet, and yet. "You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse". Somehow all the centuries of racism and slavery and empire that were still to come are entirely summed up in one phrase from 1610. What modern person wouldn't – can't help but – feel sympathy? Carey's interpretation is clearly influenced by such postcolonial critiques, as well as feminist ones regarding Miranda, who is treated like a passive object in the play, manipulated and traded and unconsulted on her future, but here given a voice and desires. Her and Caliban's experiences under the (patriarchal, white supremacist) control of Prospero – very different but both objectifying and dehumanizing – are a major theme of the book.

But don't let me overstate it! This is still basically a YA romance, and it's very much not a polemic. It's simply an excellent retelling, emphasizing certain elements of the original text, expanding upon the background and inner experience of some characters. I absolutely loved it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan by Jill Lepore. A nonfiction book about the 1741 slave rebellion in NYC. Or, well, the supposed 1741 slave rebellion in NYC; as Lepore repeatedly points out, there's not good proof that any sort of rebellion actually existed, and the over 200 people charged (91 ended up either exiled or sold, 21 were hanged, and 13 burned at the stake) were probably guilty of nothing more than muttering about their owners and the rich men of the city.

To start at the beginning: in the spring of 1741, about ten fires sprang up in the then small town of New York City. This was not particularly unusual in wooden cities of the 18th century, particularly at that time of year, when most buildings would have been dried out by winter. However, various events (the contemporary War of Jenkins' Ear, which was on the verge of evolving into the War of the Austrian Succession; recent slave rebellions in Antigua and South Carolina; a particularly brutal winter; political discontent in the city, with rival parties vying for control of the governorship) set off a panic. People became convinced that the fires had been arson and there was a conspiracy on to destroy the city. A young Irish woman, an indentured servant, stepped into the center of attention and accused her master (with whom she seems to have had other reasons to be discontented), his family, and several slaves of fomenting rebellion. This set off a firestorm of accusation and counter-accusation, added by the fact that those who confessed and named names were either freed or received reductions in their sentences, while anyone not already in jail was promised a monetary reward for accusations. Both contemporary and modern observers have compared it to the Salem Witch trials, when a similar panic seems to have led people to declare themselves guilty of obviously impossible feats.

This is a pretty interesting topic; unfortunately I don't think Lepore's book is the best treatment it could have. She's hampered by the usual problems of early history (most of the records of the time have been lost or destroyed, leaving her with only one main source to work from), but other people have succeeded where she fails. In particular she tries to make a comparison between the alleged conspiracy and the contemporary emergence of political parties, but I never agreed with – or even quite understood – what her point was with that. She draws in related histories of the time and place, but never on what I most wanted to know; she spends a lot of time with the biography of the main judge and his presumable motivations for taking the trials so far, when I would have much rather have read about the black population or daily life in NYC in the 1740s. But overall it's not a terrible book, and there's certainly an abundance of interesting facts that pop out here and there. It's just that it could have been so much better.

Mount TBR update: 1 added this week (The Enthusiast) for a total of 3!

What are you currently reading?
The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island by Mac Griswold. As may be obvious, I've got a project about slavery in early NYC going on. At least this book is proving to be much more readable and informative than Lepore's!

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Tags: bookblogging
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